The All-Time NBA Roster (Starters)
Before I start, I’d like to thank Patrick S J for piquing my interest in looking at the history in sports, and Erick Blasco for influencing the topic. Both did a terrific job with their pieces (“Erick Blasco’s All-Time NBA Team” and “The All-Time New York Yankees Line-Up, Coaching, Pitching, Bench and Media”) and I hope this works out as well.
Whenever you ask someone who the best players of all time are in any sport, you are bound to get a variety of answers, as many older fans tend to favor the players from their era, while younger fans favor today’s stars.
So I decided to challenge that thinking by creating an all-NBA roster using players from every decade. Here are the rules for my roster:
- Fill out a roster with two players from every decade starting with the 1950’s.
- Make sure all the starters have someone to back them up.
- No two players from the same decade are allowed in the starting line-up.
- Arrange the bench in the order they would come off the court.
- List two alternates who should be the best in the game from 2010-2019.
- Each should be adequate replacements on the roster.
Here are the starting five:
PG Bob Cousy (1950-1959)
The only way to really understand the impact Bob Cousy had on the game is to read what his former teammate Tommy Heinsohn says in Elliot Kalb’s book, Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Basketball, “If you think Magic Johnson could pass, if you think John Stockton could pass, multiply it by 10 and you have Bob Cousy.”
The big knock against him is that his stats aren’t that impressive (18.4 points per game, 7.5 assists), but there are several factors that explain Cousy’s numbers.
Cousy played in a time when assists were only awarded on a catch-and-shoot situation—so if the receiving player dribbled before shooting, it was not an assist.
Another important factor is that the shot-clock wasn’t around in Cousy’s time so the game was much slower, and he had no incentives to get assists.
In the 1950s and 1960s, both guards brought up the ball, as the point guard position wasn’t nearly as specialized as it is now. This explains why Cousy was responsible for fewer than 40 percent of the team’s, assists compared to Chris Paul, this year’s assist leader, and John Stockton in his prime. Both had over 50 percent of the assists for their team.
Assists didn’t carry near as much weight as they do now, because nobody kept track of the all-time assists leader, and it wasn’t a contract incentive. Cousy still won six championships with the Celtics as the top assist leader in the league for eight years, and was the No. 2 scorer on his team.
With the way the league is now, I have little doubt that Cousy would probably average 15 assists per game, which is why he has to be the best point guard ever to play the game—or at least No. 2 behind Magic Johnson.
SG Michael Jordan (1990-1999)
There shouldn’t really be much discussion. here but before you make an argument in favor of Kobe Bryant, check out some YouTube videos here and here. Jordan was nearly unstoppable against some very physical defenses—notably the Bad Boy Pistons.
He’s perhaps the only player without a weakness and was unstoppable in his prime. Jordan has to be included on any all-time list because of how competitive he was as an individual, and how he won championships.
Jordan was the first player who could take over a game singlehandedly, and was easily the most effective at it. His game got better even when his scoring average went down, because he made his teammates better just by attracting double-teams.
Teammates such as Steve Kerr, John Paxson, and Charles Oakley wouldn’t have been nearly as effective without Jordan causing the defense to focus much of their attention on him.
SF Larry Bird (1980-1989)
The best forward of all-time has to be in the starting line-up mainly for his shooting—but also his passing and rebounding.
Bird is the most competitive player in the starting five besides Jordan. There really isn’t anyone who I would consider close to his ferocity.
He dominated at a time when there were many great players in the league, and managed to stay at the top in MVP voting for most of his career. He is arguably the great forward of all time. If you look at his scoring lines against Julius Erving, you’ll notice that Bird easily outscored him while shutting Erving down on the other end.
It’s a little unfair to make that comparison, as Erving was near the end of his career—but that’s the best example to explain how good Bird was during the 1980s.
PF Tim Duncan (2000-2009)
This was probably the toughest decision for my team, because I looked at the pair of Duncan and Hakeem Olajuwon versus Shaquille O’Neal and Karl Malone. If Shaq wasn’t injured so much, I would feel a lot more comfortable taking the latter pair.
The gap doesn’t seem nearly as large between Olajuwon and O’Neal (I’ll argue this later) as it is between Malone and Duncan. Duncan is the only player in the post-Jordan era to win four championships with the same team, despite being part of several major changes each time.
Unlike many of the other superstars, he doesn’t stand out, but he was an MVP favorite every year because of his overall post ability. Duncan is the best defender of his era, and the player who made mid-range jumpers a popular weapon for post players.
C Wilt Chamberlain (1960-1969)
Chamberlain is the most dominant center of all-time. He changed the league's rules forever and was the gold standard for any dominating center for years to come.
If he was more of a team player, you could certainly make the argument that he was a better player than Jordan, but the competition was different. You have to take some of Chamberlain’s greatness away, because he only won two championships in a small league where he was the best player.
Still, it’s hard to take away the fact that nobody could stop him besides Bill Russell. He has way more 50-point games in NBA history than any other player, and played through some excruciating injuries.
It’s not just that he over-powered people, but he was actually a good scorer. He led the league in field-goal percentage for nine years.
If he had to sit out, reports say that he would quickly try to get back on the court and still performed well. No center will ever dominate the post as much as Chamberlain did.
You can find the bench players here.
Sources: basketball-reference.com and Who's Better, Who's Best in Basketball by Elliot Kalb.
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